What Gordon Burn taught me: Write, write write, day and night

The week before the first winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize is announced, novelist Ben Myers remembers the pilgrimage he made to Burn's remote home in the Scottish borders.

Haunted is one word I would use to describe Gordon Burn’s writing. Forensic is another. Across a substantial body of work that spans journalism, criticism, biography and fiction – often simultaneously - characters real and imaged drift and merge through a landscape we recognise but don’t always like to acknowledge that we inhabit.

Because Burn’s writing is not concerned with anything as ethereal as the spirit world but rather something far more disturbing: contemporary Britain, and all of its – all of our - obsessions. Crime, celebrity, corruption, sport, the media, modern art – all provide inspiration for Burn’s unique approach to storytelling. And all of it feels haunted: haunted by man’s potential, for good and unbelievably bad, and all observed in forensic detail.

Though Burn died in 2009 I can only ever use the present tense to describe his work. Whether considering the big themes of life, death and all the cruelties and disappointment inbetween or cataloguing the shimmering surfaces and minutiae of modernity his writing is so full of life that it lives on way beyond the past tense. Transcends it, in fact.

Even when digging deep into the darkest recesses of the human psyche - as he did in his 1984 portrait of Peter Sutcliffe, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son, which reached beyond the tabloid perceptions of evil to offer a poignant, studied and - yes - forensic portrait - or in Happy Like Murderers, the diabolical account of Fred and Rose West, two of life’s losers who made the leap from abused to abuser, Burn found life. His posthumously published collection of writing on modern art’s finest – Gilbert and George and Damien and Tracey - Sex & Violence, Death & Silence is the work of a man in love with life; in love with art’s ability to go beyond words.

Burn’s particular fascination with the alienating tendencies of celebrity and, perhaps more intriguingly, what comes after celebrity, was ahead of its time and his ability to transpose real people into imagined settings an influence on a new generation of writers, most notably David Peace who recently described Burn’s work as an on-going “argument between reality and imagination”. Certainly reading Burn’s debut novel Alma Cogan gave me the courage to write my first novel Richard, a novelisation of the disappearance of musician Richey Edwards.

As a shortlisted author for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, which recognises fiction or non-fiction which “most successfully represents the spirit and sensibility of Gordon's literary methods ... literature which challenges perceived notions of genre”, I recently spent time in Burn’s remote holiday home in the Scottish borders completing a novel of my own - a book set in the rural north, about murder, vice and corruption.

Six miles from the nearest shop with the River Dye running by the window and the nearby dark woods oscillating with the cooing of thousands of wood pigeons, it was an inspiring but also daunting experience. The remoteness was not a problem (I live in the windswept Pennines and generally feel like Crocodile Dundee in cities) but there was no getting around the fact: occupying the space left behind by a towering figure whose work casts a long shadow across your own is both strangely exhilarating and intimidating.

Here I was surrounded by the personal effects of a man whose work inspired me to write in the first place: the notes in the margins of other books (“Ray’s memory?” penned on a page in JB Priestley’s An English Journey, was clearly the club singer Ray Cruddas from 2003 novel The North of England Home Service taking shape before my very eyes); scribbles in his own books explaining to future readers his intentions; his DVDs of kitchen sink realist films; original art by the likes of Peter Blake and Michael Landy, and his collection of Jade Goody biographies.

How not to feel overawed – but inspired too? Where Burn’s writing so often zooms in on the fine detail – the possessions, trinkets, and totems that comprise the ephemera of all our lives - in time I found myself cataloguing those possessions which fed into his work. And when that was done and the dog was walked there was nothing else to do but write. Write, write, write. Day and night.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I do know that spaces can hold memories and I know that as creatures with finely tuned senses we react to our surroundings. Observing the life of Gordon Burn through his work and his home without ever having met him felt like rare privilege – a glimpse into the world of a true talent whose literary influence, one suspects, is only going to grow over the coming years.

Gordon Burn presented a "haunted" vision of Britain. Photograph: Sarah Lee.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism